Levelled, by David Bax
Most of the people who go see The Raid: Redemption in the theater will be driven by one chief ambition: to see some thrilling, bone-crunching, neck-snapping, skull-denting, skin-rending, arterial-spraying, femur-protruding violence. Those people will not be disappointed. Furthermore, that dominating interest does not make them any less lovers of film. In fact, given that the inherent novelty of the medium is its ability to capture motion, action movies could be said to be closer than any other genre to pure cinema. Still, any film, especially one that tells a story, necessarily contains more than one aspect. So, if a film is outstandingly successful at its primary goal, does it still have to be good otherwise?
The Raid (as I will refer to it from here on out because the recent, legally mandated addition of the subtitle Redemption is unwieldy and nonsensical) is the story of a team of 20 highly trained and heavily armed police officers attempting to neutralize a 30 story apartment building that has become the unchecked fiefdom of a violent organized crime boss. The boss, Tama, is played by Ray Sahetapy in a mesmerizing, insidious and seductive performance that is by far the standout in the film. I hope to see more of him. Tama’s lieutenants are Andi (Doni Alamsyah) and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian). The team of officers is co-led by the dutiful and upstanding Jaka (Joe Taslim) and the untrustworthy and self-interested Lt. Wahyu (Pierre Gruno). The lead, however, is the young officer and expectant father Rama, played Iko Uwais, who also co-choreographed the movie’s fight scenes with Ruhian. All this is set up in the first ten minutes or so because after that, when a lookout manages to alert Tama that the police have entered the building, everything elevates to a nearly insane pitch that never really ebbs.
In many ways, you’ve seen fight scenes like these before. Bullets fly and blood splatters. Then ammunition quickly runs low and we resort to hand to hand (or machete to machete) combat. What makes The Raid stand out is that it brings these familiar elements to a near superlative at all times but somehow never allows it to bore or numb. Each of these fights, choreographed down to the centimeter, goes on longer than you expect, yet you never want them to stop. Uwais and Ruhian have built these sequences not only to display the supreme athleticism of the cast and make you say “Holy shit” out loud as many times as possible, they have also created miniature stories within each fight. In addition, every time you think you’re seeing what must be the centerpiece fight of the film, the next one outdoes it. Picking your favorite one is like picking your favorite song off a great album. Just when you settle on the drug lab battle, you remember the eighth floor machete fight and then the torture chamber two-on-one.
It can’t be said that these fights are perfect. Sometimes, you can feel the film trying too hard to shock you and, at other times, the cliché of a roomful of guys only attacking our hero one at a time seems to lurk. But these are minor complaints. There are other things, however, that can’t be so easily forgiven. The film’s structure, in which the good guys must fight their way floor by floor to the bad guy at the top, encountering new dangers on each level, is reminiscent of a video game. In order to work, though, games need rules. The Raid sets rules for itself but then distractingly and to its detriment, breaks them when convenient. We know that the cops must stay away from the windows because there are bad guys with machine guns covering them from the outside. We know that Tama can see every hallway and stairwell via security cameras. Yet both of these axioms and others are ignored at one or more points in the film. With the fights being the only support pillar, the smallest crack in the structure can do a lot of damage.
One other major problem exists. Providing the backdrop, as it does, for such creativity in the design of the fight sequences, the film’s score becomes conspicuous in its lack of originality. One would expect no less from Mike Shinoda, he of the band Linkin Park, standard-bearers of suburban mediocrity. But it is disheartening to endure music that refuses throughout to bring anything new to the proceedings, instead content to underline the action in the most obvious ways.
A film exists at more than one level. The Raid largely does not. There is very little weight to it, either emotionally or thematically. The film does recognize the corruption that has come to define Indonesian society but it has nothing at all to say about it. The critic in me cannot call it a good film but has no trepidation whatsoever about urging you to see it. I plan on doing so again and again. Gareth Evans has not announced himself as a great new voice in action cinema. Instead, he has demonstrated that he simply has the good sense to know when to get out of the way and let his choreographers do the work for him.